“When the sun sets and darkness falls, that is when we are most afraid,” one Meitei villager said as he stood guard over his village against possible attacks from miscreants and suspected militants since the fateful night of May 3, when the communal clashes between the Meitei and Kuki communities broke out in several parts of the state.
While thousands of people belonging to the Kuki community have fled to the hill areas or outside the state or sheltered in relief camps following the eruption of the Meitei-Kuki ethnic conflict, Meitei (Meetei) villages located at the foothills on the fringe areas of Imphal, the state capital, reported that suspected Kuki militants under Suspension of Operation (SoO) have been causing havoc and destruction on the their villages.
Struggling against all odds, four villages of the Meitei community nestled on the outskirts of Bishnupur district bordering Churachandpur district and located close to Kangvai, the epicentre of the recent ethnic conflict, have taken a strong stand to protect their respective villages from the onslaught of the militants at all costs.
Villagers of Heiyaikol, Wathalambi (Santipur) and others under the Kumbi assembly constituency in Bishnupur district have stood firm and vowed to guard and protect their villages from the attack of the suspected Kuki militants.
In the effort to safeguard their villages from militant intrusion, the Meitei villagers have constructed make-shift bunkers on the periphery of their respective villages, to thwart any attacks by militants.
With women and children evacuated to several relief camps set up across the district, the male members have taken the responsibility to keep watch over their villages against their enemies round the clock ever since the ethnic conflict started on the fateful night of May 3.
Chief security advisor to the Manipur government, Kuldiep Singh had mentioned that over 50 paramilitary companies had been deployed in various sensitive areas affected by the communal conflict.
However, contrary to the the security advisor's claim, during a two-day visit to the affected villages, this IFP reporter found no state police or paramilitary forces stationed in these villages, which are worst hit by the impact of the recent ethnic conflict that was reported from 11 districts of the state.
The suspected militants are said to be still trying to usurp the villages forcefully at the time of filing this report.
Villagers of the four villages raised the same assertion that they had not seen a single paramilitary personnel stationed at the villages.
“Where have all the paramilitary troops gone?” they asked.
In the development of the clash, suspected Kuki militants had reportedly torched and ransacked surrounding villages such as Torbung Bangla and Nganukol under Bishnupur district and all trace of Meitei community in the area. Even now the militants appear to be working relentlessly to establish a stronghold and push their territory further into Bishnupur district.
Using slingshots and few licensed double barrel and single barrel firearms, the villagers face the well-trained and well-armed suspected militants.
“The militants are trained and use sophisticated firearms which enable them inflict devastating violence; we are simple farmers, we do not own any firearms. For them to carry out such a ruthless attack on innocent villagers is nothing short of a massacre,” one villager manning a bunker stated.
The start of the communal clash
Cases of violence reportedly first occurred after the ‘Tribal Solidarity March against Meetei/Meitei ST demand’ called by All Tribal Students Union (ATSUM) in all hill districts of Manipur on May 3.
IFP Churachandpur correspondent reported that three Forest Beat Houses at Mualum, Mualtam and Saikot were vandalised by miscreants around 12 noon of May 3. The files and office furniture of at least two forest beat houses were burned by the miscreants at Bungmual of Churachnadpur sub-division and Singngat sub-division.
Based on the report filed by our correspondent, after the solidarity march was over and the crowd dispersed around 2 pm, a rumour got circulated that participant of the rally were attacked and miscreants attempted to burn the Anglo-Kuki war memorial gate.
A confrontation broke out between the Kuki-Meitei at Torbung and Kangvai area which led to torching of several Meitei houses in the area.
It may be mentioned that violent outburst also took place in Kangpokpi, Moreh and other Kuki dominant areas in the state.
Videos of suspected armed Kuki militants taking part in the solidarity march had surfaced in social media, sparking speculations that the whole aftermath was premeditated by the militants.
Following the violence in Churachandpur, tension in Imphal also erupted on the night of May 3 around 7:30 pm. A large number of people came on the streets and attempted to march into Kuki residential colonies in Imphal. However, the state police forces rein in the situation and stop the tension from escalating.
The full ethnic outburst was witnessed the next day on May 4 in which several houses belonging to Kukis in Imphal and Meitei households in Churachandpur were torched. Numerous families of both communities were driven out of their homes into temporary relief camps in both districts.
Assessing the tension, district magistrates of Imphal West, Imphal East, Bishnupur, Jiribam and Churachandpur declared public curfew in their respective jurisdictions prohibiting the movements of any person outside their respective residences until further notice.
Following the tension, Vineet Joshi and Kuldeep Singh were appointed as chief secretary and chief security advisor to government of Manipur on May 7 and May 8 respectively.
In a new turn of event, a press statement allegedly signed by 10 Kuki MLAs was released on May 12 in which the MLAs claimed the Kuki community could no longer exist alongside the Meitei, and hence demanded a separate administration from the State of Manipur.
In the days following the initial eruption, the attack of suspected SoO militants also spread to other areas near Imphal, such as Tronglaobi, Dolaithabi, Pukhao, Ekou, Leitanpokpi among other foothill villages in Imphal East and Bishnupur district.
Death of Assam rifles and state commando personnel were also reported on May 10 and May 11 during encounters with the suspected SoO Kuki militants till the filing of this report.
However, contrary to ground reports, the authorities during press briefings kept reporting that the situation was ‘under control’; therefore, the set-up of the curfew has since been changed with relaxation time extended in all mentioned jurisdictions.
Impact on nearby villages
Contradictory to the government’s claim of peace and normalcy returning to Manipur, cases of unprovoked attack on villagers by suspected SoO militants are still reported in several foothill villages bordering Churachandpur.
Tucked away in an isolated foothill bordering Churchandpur district, villagers of Haotak Tampha Khunou have set up village protection camp with only around 100 men manning the bunkers constructed on the periphery overlooking their village.
The village is located only few kilometres away from Kangvai.
All women and children of the village have been ushered off to nearby relief camps and the men keep watch on their village round the clock.
Just behind the village is a newly constructed hill road which leads to Churachandpur. According to villagers, it takes only around 30 minute to reach Churachandpur through the hilly bypass.
But, according to reports, the road had been used by the militants to initiate unprovoked attack on the villagers since May 3.
A villager exuded confidence that the whole devastation would stop only when the SoO Kuki militants are kept in restraint.
“The few licensed firearms the villagers have are no match for the sophisticated weapons of the militants,” he said.
“The government has finally started sending help but it is too little and too late. The state government could have provided us with good weapons and we would fight to protect our village or die trying instead of waiting,” he added.
Although only eight security personnel have been deployed in the village on May 14, the deep sense of insecurity and helplessness still prevail among the villages.
On the second day of the visit, the Haotak Tampha Khunou villagers discovered two country-made lathode gun hidden in the bushes of neighbouring Haotak Khullen village, a Kuki village which has been abandoned since the start of the conflict.
The villagers expressed assurance that the Khullen Kuki villagers had been planning an attack on the Meitei village for a long time.
Meanwhile, speaking to the media at a bunker constructed on Saiton-Nganukol bridge, a villager of Saiton stated that suspected armed Kuki militants started to march into neighbouring Meitei villages near Kangvai on May 4.
The villager maintained that the Meitei villagers of Saiton did not initiate any attack against the neighbouring Kuki militants. “We only retaliated when the armed Kuki militants started to attack us,” he added.
“Nganukol and Torbung Bangla are the closest villages to Kangvai which were completely destroyed but the violence did not stop there. All Meitei villages adjacent to the two were also targeted,” he claimed.
He stated that Saiton-Heiyakol were attacked numerous times by the militants and added that several casualties were reported, including the death of four militants, in the several confrontation between forces and militants in the areas bordering the village.
He also informed that the militants’ attempt to take over the village has not stopped since May 4.
“The few licensed firearms we possess is nothing compared to their sophisticated firearms but we will fight even if it costs us our lives,” he added.
As per sources, around 30 security personnel have been deployed at the village around noon on May 14.
He further expressed disappointment with state authorities’ delayed action to provide protection to villagers residing in the foothill villages of Bishnupur district. He also reiterated that the villagers should have been provided with proper firearms if the government was going to delay in sending security troops to Saiton village.
Women villagers join menfolk in guarding the village
The same is the concern and demand of Wathalambi (Santipur) villagers where militants had torched nearly 30 houses in the village. Till now, women of the village have stuck around with the men to protect the village.
“The militants started marching into our village and started to torch the houses; the villagers dispersed to save their own lives,” a woman villager said. She narrated that the villagers returned only when the militants had left the village. “But they come every now and then at midnight; we are completely helpless,” she added.
It may be mentioned that Wathalambi village has no bunker and the villagers stay huddled at a community hall in the village to keep watch over the village.
“The village borders Kuki dominant area as such it is constantly attacked by Kuki militants; we do not know what to do,” he said.
Meanwhile, the National Highways -2 and -37 had also been blocked by protesters in Kuki dominant areas in an attempt to cut off transportation of goods laden trucks towards Imphal.
With little or no security provided, the villagers demand proper weapons to protect their villages.
Till now there no clear details on where the paramilitary forces or state forces are deployed even though the security advisor had informed that more paramilitary troops had been deployed in peripheral areas.
Some villagers had started questioning the authorities for their delay in sending security in their diplomacy to preserve their political power.
The Kuki militants still roam free and attack the villagers on their whims; this shows the failure of state security protocols, one villager said.
However, the state government had met with the Central leaders in the wake of the crisis situation in the state. Regarding the demand for a separate administration by the 10 Kuki MLAs, including two ministers of the state government, the chief minister also informed of Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s assurance to keep intact the territorial integrity of Manipur.
Amid the continuing unrest, high tension and so-called ‘measures’ of the government, villagers of Haotak Tampha Khunou, Saiton, Heiyaikol and Wathalambi continue their fight against their attackers and wait for the state security and paramilitary forces to come to their rescue.
Till the time of filing this report, more bunkers had been constructed in the villages as they believed the attacks and conflict will drag on for a while.